OCTOBER 24, 2013 – A new Wenzel Strategies poll of likely voters in Virginia shows the race for governor is a pretty tight contest, though Democrat Terry McAuliffe continues to enjoy a small lead. It all depends on what the turnout is going to be, and whether Democrats who turned out in big numbers last year for President Obama come out again for McAuliffe.
There is evidence in the new WS survey that that will not be the case, as both McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli are not held in high esteem in the minds of voters and more people are discouraged with the general direction of the state than are encouraged. The Wenzel Strategies survey shows McAuliffe leading, 41% to 40%, with the balance of voters either favoring Libertarian Rob Sarvis (10%) or undecided.
The Wenzel Strategies poll, using a turnout model that is closely balanced, includes a sample of 28% Democrats, 26% Republicans, and 46% independent voters. This reflects the swing-state tradition of Virginia that has lately leaned toward Republicans in statewide, non-presidential years, but has tilted to the Democrats in recent presidential elections.
Using a turnout model replicated by Quinnipiac University in its recent survey, weighting the sample to include 33% Democrats, 25% Republicans, and 42% independents or minor party supporters, McAuliffe leads with 43%, compared to 38% Cuccinelli, 10% for Sarvis and 9% yet undecided. This reflects a slight tightening of the race, compared to the Quinnipiac survey that showed McAuliffe with a 7-point lead.
The survey shows there is reason to believe the race may well be tightening going into the final stretch, as a key issue benefitting McAuliffe fades into the rearview mirror – the recent government shutdown, which hit some parts of Virginia hard. As the shutdown fades, another key issue that benefits Cuccinelli – the expanding controversy over the bungled rollout of Obamacare – is bound to grab more attention among voters by the day. It could well be that Cuccinelli has bounced off his low point and is headed up.
Finally, the question of how many conservative voters who say now that they support Sarvis will actually follow through and vote for him is yet unanswered. Voters who are disaffected with the political establishment can say they are supporting a third-party candidate, but actually casting a ballot for a spoiler is quite another matter. Outsiders have won GOP primary elections in recent cycles, but my sense is it is less likely to happen in this instance, when Sarvis supporters know it could well lead directly to the election of someone whose political philosophy is completely opposite of their own.
Uncertainty on this question is further compounded by the fact that 53% of Virginians don’t even know enough about Sarvis to have formed an opinion about him. His support must be considered soft at best. In addition, a significant percentage said they were yet unsure about the race – 9% are yet undecided, yet are likely to vote.
The Wenzel Strategies survey shows voters are split on both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli. While 45% said they have a favorable opinion of McAuliffe, 46% have an unfavorable opinion of him. For Cuccinelli, 47% hold a favorable opinion, while 50% have an unfavorable opinion of him.
McAuliffe has done a better job locking down his political base, perhaps in part to recent campaigning in the state by both Clintons, who are longtime allies of McAuliffe. Among Democrats, McAuliffe wins 81% support. Among Republicans, Cuccinelli wins just 68% support. Among those who consider themselves political independents, Cuccinelli wins 44% support, compared to 33% for McAuliffe and 11% for Sarvis.